MANAMA // Nearly 300 politicians, businessmen and Bahraini leaders will start discussing the political, social and economic problems that the kingdom faces when a national dialogue begins tonight.
Fifteen facilitators will lead four committees in five-hour conversations, three times a week. They will discuss the laws governing political parties, the lack of opportunities for young people, women's rights and the economy.
"Without a doubt, the most controversial will be the political discussions," said Isa Abdul Rahman, the spokesman for the national dialogue sessions. "Here is where we have the strongest views."
Opposition groups have been calling for more of Bahrain's government to be democratically elected.
While officials say King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa is open to reforms, opposition members say parts of the power structures of Bahrain appear sacrosanct. Among these is the ability of the king to appoint the prime minister. But there could be negotiation on having the parliament more involved with ministerial appointments.
For the first time in months, these issues will be debated in closed sessions where the invited groups and individuals can speak openly instead of in street protests, Mr Abdul Rahman said. He added that participants had been guaranteed they will not face punishment for being frank. While proceedings are closed, there would be regular news conferences with announcements about any agreements.
The 297 participants would try to reunite the country after protests and violence left more than 30 people - mostly protesters - dead since the beginning of March, Mr Abdulrahman said. Members will meet at Isa Cultural Centre in Manama. No deadline has been set for producing a report.
The talks have drawn some resistance. Protests have broken out sporadically in the days leading up to the meeting. Still, several participants in the talks said the country yearned for reconciliation.
"I believe this dialogue will lead to changes," said Jamal Fakhro, the first deputy chairman of Bahrain's Shura Council and a member of the dialogue. "This is not the first time the country has been divided. We had issues in the 1920s, the 1950s, the 1990s, and now in the 21st-century. We always found a way. In Bahrain, we cannot live without each other. We cannot live divided. Our society is too small."
Opposition groups, however, said the dialogue did not go far enough in addressing citizens' demands.
Khalil Al Marzooq, a member of the Islamic National Accord Association, or Al Wefaq, said at a news conference on Saturday that the group had agreed to join the dialogue only to "expose" the meeting's biases. One of Al Wefaq's main criticisms of the process is that the ideas will not be voted on by the citizens.
With such a diverse group of people involved, organisers have had to come up with definitions for how to communicate the results of the discussions, Mr Abdul Rahman said.
"There is no voting," he said. "But we have come up with other ways of communicating the level of consensus" to the king.
At the highest level of consensus is "full compatibility". Then there is "wide support, with some exceptions", which allows for disagreeing parties to voice their reservations. And "remaining of differences", where parties are not in agreement. That category allows for a smaller group to work on the issue or have the wider committee continue debating.
Al Wefaq complained that the categories made it too easy to dismiss opposition concerns. Even on the most contentious issues, they argue, the set-up will make it seem like only a minority were not in agreement.
Al Wefaq held 18 of 40 parliamentary seats in the lower house before resigning en masse in February after two protesters were killed in clashes with the authorities.
Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, a Bahrain government spokesman, said that "all recommendations will be evaluated with great scrutiny and weight will be given to blocs … who represent substantial numbers of the community and population".